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Sleepy Teens: Why Are Our Teenagers Always So Tired?

What is better in the world than laying your head on the pillow at night, breathing those last tired sighs and tumbling into restful oblivion? Ask any new parent; sleep is the greatest gift of Mother Nature. It makes perfect sense to me that sleep deprivation has been used as a torture device throughout the ages. From the outside, it appears that the average teenager understands the value of sleep like no other. Nobody loves a sleep-in like a teen and there is very good reason for this.

All Those Hormones

During early adolescence, the change in a child’s hormones mean that they are likely to find it difficult to go to sleep as quickly and as early as they have previously. This is a result of a change in the timing of their brain’s production of melatonin. This change also means that they will have trouble waking up early in the morning. There is a stereotype that teenagers are just slack, but these biological changes are very real. In an ideal world, high school would start two hours later than it currently does, but unfortunately that will never happen as schools need to fit in with the rest of the workforce. Besides, imagine managing that morning routine!

Busy Brains

Added to biological changes, teenagers enhance the problem by entertaining themselves in the hours before they fall asleep with electronic media. By nature the movement, colour and noise of these devices activate the brain making it even harder to fall asleep. Light from devices also cues the brain to stay in a state of alertness.

The nature of teenagers’ lives is busy. They are scheduled with afterschool activities, as well as homework, socialising and school itself. Some children participate in before school activities, these are recognised as being the most difficult for a child to assimilate. The brain is being trained to be continually active, so it is not surprising that kids find it hard to wind down at the end of the day. Perhaps we could all learn from those cultures that value more stillness. Western culture tends to value movement and productivity. It is not necessary or healthy to be always in action.

The Science of Sleep

When looking at schooling, the biggest problem with sleep deprivation is that the prefrontal cortex of the brain does not cope well with lack of sleep. As the prefrontal cortex is where the tools for learning reside, this is a real issue. Santa Maria College Psychologist, Christine Davis explains, “During adolescence the brain undergoes major structural changes, especially in the prefrontal cortex. This area connects all regions of the brain together and integrates sensory information. The prefrontal cortex is crucial for executive functioning such as planning, attention, learning, analytical thinking, consolidating new learning, working memory, abstract thinking, problem solving and decision making.  Lack of sleep during this reconstruction phase may impede the development of the prefrontal cortex.”

With the increased complexity of information presented to students in high school, greater demand is placed on this prefrontal cortex of the brain. It simply cannot cope with sleep deprivation. Teachers know instantly if a child hasn’t slept well the night before, it is obvious in everything the child does in class. It may not be as obvious to a parent before school because the activities undertaken then are typically more automated and rely less on this section of the brain.

Effects of Sleep Deprivation

The average teenager needs at least 10 hours of sleep. Unfortunately the average Australian teenager only actually gets 8 – 9 hours of sleep a night. That means that their sleep debt is growing daily.  On-going sleep deprivation has a big affect on growing brains. Some of the effects, as outlined by the Victorian Health Department include:

  • Concentration difficulties
  • Mentally ‘drifting off’ in class
  • Shortened attention span
  • Memory impairment
  • Poor decision making
  • Lack of enthusiasm
  • Moodiness and aggression
  • Depression
  • Risk-taking behaviour
  • Slower physical reflexes
  • Clumsiness, which may result in physical injuries
  • Reduced sporting performance
  • Reduced academic performance

Every thirty minutes of extra sleep that a child gets makes a difference in these areas.

How Can You Help Your Teen Get More Sleep?

Unfortunately, sometimes teenagers aren’t the best judges of what is good for them. Parents ought to be setting consistent bedtimes and enforcing them. Culturally there is a growing tendency to allow teenagers to choose their own bedtime as a rite of passage. It acknowledges that they are growing up and it is a simple way to show that you acknowledge that. Try and find a different way of acknowledging maturity. Sleep is too important to be used in this way.

  1. Have set bedtimes that are enforced. Neurologists recommend this for everyone, not just teens.
  2. Shut down devices at least an hour before bed. Devices need to be stored in family space, not bedrooms so that kids aren’t tempted to check them during the night.
  3. Stop homework, computer games, loud music or any other activity that heightens brain stimulation an hour before sleep.
  4. Establish a winding down ritual for your child. It might be showering immediately before bed, reading or having quiet talk time with you. It could take about four weeks to have real effects, but it will be worthwhile.
  5. Make sure bedrooms are quiet and dark.
  6. No caffeinated food or drinks before bed, including coffee, tea, cola drinks and chocolate.
  7. If necessary you may like to explore meditation programs. There are lots available and specifically aimed at teenagers.
  8. If all else fails, seek medical advice. Sleep is that important.

Linda Stade has worked in various teaching and management roles in education for twenty-five years. She has worked in government and private schools, country and city, single sex and co-ed. Currently she is the Research Officer at Santa Maria College, Western Australia. She has a Facebook page here.

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